Monday, January 23, 2012

A People's Read-a-long: Week 2


Welcome to Week 2 of A People's Read-a-long! I'm still thoroughly enjoying this read-a-long. It's incredibly easy to keep track of reading one chapter a week. I even managed to keep up while being away at ALA Midwinter most of this week (I'm coming home tonight...hooray for  plane reading time!)

My thoughts: Chapter 2, entitled "Drawing the Color Line," focuses on slavery and its origins in the United States. I found this topic illuminating, depressing and simultaneously fascinating and difficult to read. Having read and enjoyed Property, Valerie Martin's Orange Prize-winning novel of slavery earlier this month (my review), I found myself connecting the dots between Zinn's history and the story of Manon in 1828 Louisiana.

What I found most interesting in this chapter was the role of racism. When I think of slavery, I think of racism, but Zinn outlined this distinction: "In the early years of slavery, especially, before racism as a way of thinking was firmly ingrained, while while indentured servants were often treated as badly as black slaves, there was a possibility of cooperation." It makes sense of course, when you think of who the early settlers were: "many of them were skilled craftsmen, or even men of leisure back in England, who were so little inclined to work the land that John Smith, in those early years, had to declare a kind of martial law, organize them into work gangs, and force them into the fields for survival." As I pondered this obvious idea I hadn't thought of before, I was reminded of Ann Weisbarger's phenomenal debut novel The Personal History of Rachel DuPree, where a black couple become homesteaders in South Dakota's Badlands (my review). Many of their neighbors bailed when times got tough, or tougher, there were other options. Times were indeed tough for the early settlers: "The Virginians of 1619 were desperate for labor, to grow enough food to stay alive. Among them were survivors from the winter of 1609–1610, the “starving time,” when, crazed for want of food, they roamed the woods for nuts and berries, dug up graves to eat the corpses, and died in batches until five hundred colonists were reduced to sixty." Slavery was their answer.

I find it fascinating that this notion of survival prompted slavery. It's a sign of the complicated nature of human relationships that slavery prompted racism. I imagine slaveowners let themselves begin to believe slaves were different so they could find a way to try to live with their actions. Justifying human behavior is a fascinating idea, and this chapter was filled with troubling justifications that begin to seem almost understandable in the times but still reprehensible to a thinking person:
"There may have been a kind of frustrated rage at their own ineptitude, at the Indian superiority at taking care of themselves, that made the Virginians especially ready to become the masters of slaves."
It's an uncomfortable chapter to identify with the positions of both slaves and owners, but it's an important one.

Favorite passage:  "Slaves recently from Africa, still holding on to the heritage of their communal society, would run away in groups and try to establish villages of runaways out in the wilderness, on the frontier. Slaves born in America, on the other hand, were more likely to run off alone, and, with the skills they had learned on the plantation, try to pass as free men."

There's still time to join in! Buy A People's History of the United States from an independent bookstore, the Book Depository or Amazon (the Kindle version I have seems to no longer be available, thus vindicating my habits of impulse Kindle shopping!) You don't have to post each week. Stop by Fizzy Thoughts and Life...With Books to join the conversation!

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12 comments:

  1. I was fascinated too by those passages you quoted and the whole concepts of how racism and slavery started. It was difficult reading about the conditions they were often in though like in that small space.

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    1. Yes, it was excruciating to even read about those conditions. I simply cannot fathom.

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  2. You did a brilliant job of writing this post. I struggled with my post this week because there was so much I wanted to talk about. That part about the eating of corpses to survive didn't make the cut but it stuck with me -- how desperate they were to get food.

    I love that this week's reading is tying into other books you have read. I think that helps to illuminate many of Zinn's points.

    And I agree with you that a chapter a week is the perfect pace for this type of book.

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    1. Thanks, Jenners! I didn't think I would want to post each week, but I'm really enjoying the time to think over the chapters. I was surprised how much of this chapter resonated in recent fiction with me, but it does go to show I am first and foremost a fiction lover!

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  3. "many of them were skilled craftsmen, or even men of leisure back in England, who were so little inclined to work the land that John Smith, in those early years, had to declare a kind of martial law, organize them into work gangs, and force them into the fields for survival."

    This made me mad. So, what is essentially going on is that a portion of the people were lazy, so they went out and got slave labor, instead of refraining from a life of leisure and actually doing the work that was necessary for survival. I know that is an oversimplification, but it irks me nonetheless. I haven't gotten much beyond the sections that talk about Jonestown yet, as I am a bit behind, but even the idea that they at first were trying to enslave the Indians made me angry. This book is so fascinating, and it gives me so much food for thought, but a lot of the behavior in it is morally unpleasant for me to read about.

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    1. Heather, I love your strong reaction! It is shocking, isn't it? But knowing how ingrained the leisure class is, it's oddly not surprising. The perils of generations of entitlement at work...

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  4. I finished Steinbeck's Travels with Charley this morning, and I wish I'd read it a week earlier. At the very end of the book he's in New Orleans, and his experiences with racism were shocking. It was a good tie in with Zinn's book.

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    1. I love that your reading is tying in with Zinn too! The pace of this read-a-long is perfect for that.

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  5. This is certainly one for a book discussion. The quote that you selected could be discussed for hours. Then there was the quote that Zibilee highlighted. They're thought-provoking and disturbing.

    On a personal note, I'm sorry that I missed you at the ALA Midwinter meeting. I was at the Penguin booth on Friday, and it would have been a treat to have met you in person. I owe you a dinner out on the town for your gracious support of Rachel DuPree. Next time!

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    1. Ann, I'm so sorry to have missed you! I hope our paths cross sometime soon!

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  6. Wow -- fantastic post. Loved reading your thoughts and these excerpts -- I so need to read this book.

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    1. Thanks, Audra! I think you'd really enjoy this one!

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Thank you for taking the time to comment. Happy reading!